Boys from the RAF Benevolent Fund's school at Vanbrugh Castle, Blackheath, visit the "Cutty Sark" windjammer. The boys form the choir at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
In Seattle. USA, a man is busily writing his autobiography. In Greenwich, London, the staff and pupils of a school are waiting eagerly for the book's completion and publication.
The book, "I Lived in a Castle", is being written by Stanley Willis, a former pupil of Vanbrugh Castle, the RAF Benevolent Fund's hilltop school overlooking Greenwich Park, which for 41 years has provided education for sons of airmen who have died. Vanbrugh Castle was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect and dramatist, in 1717, and is listed as a building of special architectural and historic interest. It was presented to the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1920 by the late Alexander Duckham, founder of the famous oil firm. A neighbouring house was presented to the Fund by the late Viscount Wakefield in 1939, and this is known as the Wakefield Wing. A block of three new classrooms was added in 1959, and another room converted into a laboratory.
The school is administered locally by a house committee, and centrally by the Alexander Duckham Memorial School Committee, under the chairmanship of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders. On the resident staff are the headmaster, three assistant masters, a matron and a housekeeper.
The Castle, steeped in historical atmosphere, has its classrooms named after RAF heroes such as Douglas Bader, Leonard Cheshire and Guy Gibson, and is an ideal setting for an education of an individual character. The boys also have a library, hobbies room and cinema.
Headmaster Mr John Corner says: "We have 53 boys at the school and classes are small. The boys learn very quickly to be self-confident and helpful to others. Team spirit, both at work and play, is splendid." Mr Corner, previously a housemaster at King's School, Canterbury, became head at Vanbrugh Castle five years ago. He is justifiably proud of the school's successes in the 11-plus examination, and says: "Up to now 65 per cent of our boys have passed the ll-plus, which is considerably higher than the national average."
Boys normally enter Vanbrugh Castle when they are eight years old. They remain until they are thirteen when they either transfer to another boarding school, or return home and attend a local day school.
The Vanbrugh Castle school band has become widely known in the London area, and even further afield. Trained by Mr Paddy Purcell, former bandmaster of the East Yorkshire Regt and conductor of the London Military Band, the school's instrumentalists have for some time attracted the attention of the London Youth Band. Six Vanbrugh Castle boys have been selected to play in the London band, which has 70 performers Says Mr Purcell: "One boy in every three at Vanbrugh Castle is learning a wind instrument. I am delighted with the standard of concentration and performance, which is quite outstanding for such a small school. We have three combined practices a week, and the band usually has 18 performers. All the bandsmen are between nine and thirteen years old."
Greenwich Round Table has raised funds for the school through local functions, and has helped to pay for some of the instruments. Other instruments have been donated by prominent public figures who have interested themselves in the school and its activities. The young bandsmen have played for the Duchess of Kent, and have been visited by Sir John Barbirolli.
Sport plays a big part in the life of the boys of Vanbrugh Castle. They are the only school enjoying the privilege of playing football in Greenwich Park, Their opponents include teams at university and cathedral choir schools in Cambridge and London.
The school has its own Scout troop and Wolf Cub pack. School mascots are Joshua, a pigeon which delights in perching on visitors' heads; a tortoise and a hedgehog.
Each boy at Vanbrugh Castle receives education of a standard that would cost up to £350 a year at a good preparatory school. "Everything possible is done for the boys", says the headmaster. "Essential clothing, books, equipment, even railway fares when they go home on holiday and special visits, are all free of charge."
A successful "combined operation" has existed for many years with the nearby Royal Naval College, Greenwich, whose Chaplain gives the boys religious instruction once a week (preparing the older boys for confirmation), and the Vanbrugh Castle boys sing in the choir of the beautiful Wren Chapel of the College. In other ways the Royal Naval College authorities are most co-operative and helpful. Old boys of Vanbrugh Castle make swift progress in the outside world. One is now a flying instructor at the RAF College, Cranwell. Others have made their mark in the commercial sphere. By coincidence two of the boys educated at the school at their mother's request, are sons of one of the first boys at the Castle.
Americans have shown considerable interest in Vanbrugh Castle. Each year the US Air Attache takes Christmas gifts to the school. One American officer was so impressed by the standards of the boys, and the quality of the staff, that he inquired if he could send his own sons to be taught at the Castle.
Applications for admission to the school should be addressed to the Secretary of the RAF Benevolent Fund at 67 Portland Place, London WI.
"Prep" in the Sun
A happy kick-around with footballs during playtime.
To the architect-soldier. Sir John Vanbrugh, the county home he built high above Greenwich was a reminder of the time he spent as a prisoner of the French. When it was completed In 1717 it was called Bastille House.
But to-day its crenelated turrets have a new message for RAF widows. They spell freedom, freedom from the worry of how to care for a growing boy on a small income.
For Bastille House — now called Vanbrugh Castle — is a term-time home for 51 boys whose fathers died either during or after service in the ranks with the RAF.
Sad? Not at all.
"There is no room — or need — for pity here," says headmaster Mr. J. H. Corner, "They are as happy a crowd of boys as you will find anywhere."
In fact in many ways they are better off than other youngsters.
The RAF Benevolent Fund, which runs the school, aims to give them as good an education as their fathers would have provided. With an average of only nine boys to a class, their schooling is much more effective than in overcrowded State schools.
" We sometimes get boys from other schools who know little because, in a big class, they've never been under pressure to learn," says Mr. Corner. " Here they get individual attention and encouragement."
The school's policy is to stimulate boys into making the best use of their abilities. Under the impetus of a school band formed by London Military Band conductor Paddy Purcell. over half the boys play instruments.
" They play because we've given them the opportunity," the headmaster told me. "Who knows how many poets or playwrights we have just waiting for a chance to develop ? "
But one thing is banned— any attempt to influence youngsters towards seeking a career in the RAF.
Says Mr. Corner: " After all if a mother has lost her husband in the RAF she might not want us to push her son into the service."
In fact, about one sixth of the boys join the Air Force. One ex-pupil is now an instructor at the Service's training college at Cranwell.
Most of the boys are in the eight-to-13 age bracket and within a few years 13 will be the top limit. After that, they will transfer to other boarding schools.
The fund even gives them pocket money — in addition to anything they receive from ; their mothers—scaled up from 1s. a week to 2s. 6d. for the seniors.
And they get the same cinema facilities as any serving airman. Every fortnight the RAF Cinema Corporation sends a current feature film for showing on the school's own equipment.
Next week's attraction: "The Night We Dropped A Clanger."
If the boys enjoy the life, their head does too. Mr. Corner took over the post nearly six years ago after being head of modern languages at King's School, Canterbury.
Mr.J.H.Corner the headmaster
"Until then I'd had no contact with an eight-year-old," he says "I thought that at 45 it was time I did - and I'm glad I came."